Read: Does Altruism Exist?

Altruism is usually defined as social behavior that decreases the fitness of the altruist and increases the fitness of the recipient (Hamilton 1964). If you are an economist you will likely prefer utility in lieu of fitness. A society of pure altruists can be successfully invaded by a non-altruist and with enough time the pure altruists would die out. Pure altruism (without any additional assumptions) is not evolutionary stable. Therefore, the question whether altruism exists does not have an obvious answer despite all the kind actions that we may observe in our society.

In “Does Altruism Exist?”, David Sloan Wilson’s does not only try to answer the question given in his book’s title he also tries to convince the reader of the superiority or at least applicability of multilevel evolutionary selection theory, in short, group selection, to analyze a potential justification for the existence and survival of altruism in human society.

I have several issues with the book.

Kind actions are not necessarily acts of altruism

The idea of selfish genes can lead to kin selection that would entail also the inclusion of indirect fitness. Kind acts towards kin would increase the indirect fitness and are therefore self-interested, they can be interpreted as the result of the maximization of a utility function that includes benefits accruing to kin (Dawkins 1976).

A kind, costly action today in the hope of a reciprocal kind action by the recipient later can be seen as an investment, a self-serving maximization of one’s expected utility (Trivers 1971). Reciprocity leads to a mutual benefit. Reciprocal cooperation is not altruism.

A kind, costly action today without the expectation of direct reciprocation but the hope of building a good reputation or gaining social status that may lead to kind acts by other members of the society, i.e. indirect reciprocity, is an investment. It can also act as a costly signal that allows screening for a cooperative partner that will then allow mutual beneficial cooperation (Zahavi 1975). Again, it is an investment and a self-serving maximization of one’s expected utility, not altruism.

Cooperative behavior is not necessarily altruistic behavior as it is more often than not mutually beneficial. No one would label the act of giving something to someone else that is part of a voluntary trade and therefore mutually beneficial an altruistic act. An act that will result or is expected to result in a benefit, direct and indirect, that exceeds the cost of the act is not an altruistic act.

Now, does altruism exist?

Wilson offers the following answers to the central question.

  • ALTRUISM EXISTS. If by altruism we mean traits that evolve by virtue of benefiting whole groups, despite being selectively disadvantageous within groups, then altruism indubitably exists and accounts for the group-level functional organization that we see in nature.
  • Altruism also exists as a criterion that people use for adopting behaviors and policies, with the welfare of whole groups in mind rather than more narrow individual and factional interests. This kind of intentional group selection is as important as natural group selection in the evolution of functionally organized human groups.
  • Finally, if by altruism we mean a broad family of motives that cause people to score high on a PROSOCIALITY scale by agreeing with statements such as “I think it’s important to help other people,” then altruism also exists, although more in some people than others. Thanks to the High-PROs of the world, our families, neighborhoods, schools, voluntary associations, businesses, and governments work as well as they do.

Wilson gives three different conceptualizations of altruism: self-reported pro-sociality, (social) efficiency seeking behavior, and weak altruism.

Yes, people report (different degrees) of pro-social proclivities and we are able to observe behavior that seeks to maximize social efficiency (and therefore may be likely to increase individual utility at the same time). And, yes, weak altruism exists, too. Wilson gives some empirical examples in his book.

Weak altruism is not altruism

A weak altruistic act implies only a relative fitness disadvantage within the own group. Other group members benefit more from the act than oneself does. This means that actions that provide a benefit to everyone in the group, including the actor, are labeled weakly altruistic. If the individual benefit exceeds the costs the act would not be called altruistic according to the standard definition.

The provision of a public (or rather club) good that generates a private benefit that exceeds its cost is weakly altruistic. However, it is (or at least can be) also the result of a self-interested maximization of the actor’s utility function. It is not altruism.

In his book, Wilson argues for the equivalence of group selection and kin selection. They are different perspectives to look at the problem of explaining cooperative behavior. Cooperative behavior is explained under kin selection as the self-interested maximization of inclusive fitness, a utility that includes also benefits accruing to kin. Consequently, if group selection is equivalent to kin selection it is obvious that cooperative behavior explained by multilevel evolutionary forces are also a result of a self-interested maximization of an extended fitness concept. The novelty may be, that the inclusive fitness of the group members is not necessarily only determined by their genetic relatedness. Cultural cohesion may be able to increase the inclusiveness. Wilson, however, never makes this point explicitly.

By redefining altruism Wilson gives a correct answer to the wrong problem. Weak altruism exists. The question whether altruism exists remains, however, unanswered.

This is insofar even more disappointing as Wilson states numerous times that he provides a post-resolution perspective and that consensus has been achieved (on the issue of group selection as the dominant theory among evolutionary theorists). It is not.

Another reason for discontent: Altruism and Economics

Wilson discusses (concepts of) altruism in different contexts. One of these contexts is economics or the strangely biased idea of what economics is according to Wilson. Wilson confuses (reckless) greed and selfishness with self-interest. Despite briefly mentioning authors like Hayek (Austrian Economics), Friedman (as a representative for Neoclassical Economics), or Richard Thaler (Behavioral Economics) he focuses his discussion of altruism and economics on Ayn Rand (the popular author, not an economist). Consequently, he, again, focuses on aspects of limited relevance – and now also with limited competence.

Given that Wilson’s discussion of altruism, or rather weak altruism, is maybe more properly framed as in inquiry into human cooperation (and this now includes mutually beneficial acts) he would indeed be able to contribute constructively. Economic activity is a prime example of human cooperation. The Evolution of Values, Trust and Trustworthiness, Law, and Moral Behavior in Markets are important topics in economics as evidenced by, e.g., Friedman’s Moral and Markets and Zak’s Moral Markets.

A positive surprise: Altruism and Religion

Even though I have found points disagreement or annoyance I have also learned an interesting fact.

Given that Wilson’s work is funded by the Templeton Foundation it is no surprise that he also has to comment on the link between altruism and religion. It is a credit to the Templeton Foundation that he does it with the following revelation: Religions do not promote altruism. Indeed, cooperative behavior is instrumental in obtaining whatever rewards are promised (after death). Benevolence, charity, and human caring in the foundation texts of the religions lead all to a direct benefit for the actor. Consequently, according to the religions studied, all kind behavior is an investment in one’s future fate and hence the result of a self-interested utility maximization.

For the religious, there is no such thing as altruism. Altruism is a fundamentally secular concept.

A constructive thought?

Richard Dawkins rails against Wilson’s group selection as a “poorly defined and incoherent view that evolution is driven by the differential survival of whole groups of organisms.”

Indeed, after reading Wilson’s book important aspects of multilevel selection remain unclear. If altruistic behavior is “selectively disadvantageous within groups” then even if altruistic groups prosper the altruists in these groups will die out over time. So “altruistic” groups need not only to drive out “selfish” groups they need to protect their altruists from selfish individuals within their society. Wilson does not explain the necessary processes that allow altruistic groups to remain altruistic. I can only imagine that a fast growing society needs to split off offspring societies that are more homogeneous than the parent society so that altruistic individuals are more likely to meet other altruistic individuals. (He does mention a similar mechanism elsewhere.)

However, an obvious modification of the evolutionary model was introduced by Wilson without him noticing. In Altruism in Everyday Life, he plots the spatial distribution of the above mentioned pro-sociality score in Binghamton. A clear clustering of high-score individuals in one area and low-score individuals in other areas are evident. Spatial structure defines the likelihood of interaction. Schelling’s work showed segregation results even with only a slight preference for “similar“ neighbors (Schelling 1971; Schelling 1978). In such spatially structured interactions pure altruists can survive and, indeed, prosper (Ohtsuki et al. 2006). No multilevel selection is needed, selection on the level of the individual is sufficient.

It’s not as bad as I make it seem it is

I have focused on the points of disagreement. Wilson also discusses or at least hints at fascinating and important ideas like the distinction between altruistic action and motivation, the difficulty of identifying motivations, and groups as organisms instead of groups of organisms.

All in all, despite the criticism expressed above Does Altruism Exist? is an interesting, thought-provoking treatise on human cooperation and altruism.


  • Dawkins, Richard. 1976. “The Selfish Gene.” Oxford University Press.
  • Hamilton, W. D. 1964. “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour. I.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 7 (1): 1–16.
  • Ohtsuki, Hisashi, Christoph Hauert, Erez Lieberman, and Martin A. Nowak. 2006. “A Simple Rule for the Evolution of Cooperation on Graphs and Social Networks.” Nature 441 (7092): 502–5.
  • Schelling, Thomas C. 1971. “Dynamic Models of Segregation.” The Journal of Mathematical Sociology 1 (2). Taylor & Francis: 143–86.
  • ———. 1978. “Micromotives and Macrobehavior.” New York: Norton.
  • Trivers, Robert L. 1971. “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism.” The Quarterly Review of Biology 46 (1). University of Chicago Press: 35–57.
  • Zahavi, Amotz. 1975. “Mate selection—A Selection for a Handicap.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 53 (1). Elsevier: 205–14.